Monthly Archives: June 2012

News Corp: Divide and conquer?

By Christopher B. Daly 

No doubt, Rupert Murdoch has something up his sleeve. His News Corp. has announced plans to divide into two new companies — one involved in print activities (mainly publishing the more than 100 newspapers in Australia, Great Britain, and the US) and another one involved in the far more lucrative activity of broadcasting.

Like many people, I suspect that Murdoch is seeking to protect the value of the broadcasting companies by separating them from his troubled print operations, which are the target of the phone-hacking scandal in the U.K. (and which threaten to drag the company into a parallel scandal here in the U.S. before too long).

In an interview with the pompous windbag Neil Cavuto on Fox News yesterday, the inscrutably inarticulate Murdoch said he had no goal other than to improve both companies by letting their talented managers do their best. Yeah, right.

Stay tuned (but not to Cavuto).

From right to far right: Cavuto, Murdoch, Ailes   (AP photo)

From right to far right: Cavuto, Murdoch, Ailes (AP photo)

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Journalism 101: Read the whole opinion

By Christopher B. Daly

It comes down to this: two major news organizations (CNN and Fox News) blew their initial coverage of the most important Supreme Court ruling this decade. They did so because reporters at both cable news outlets made a rookie mistake by generating headlines without reading the whole SCOTUS opinion. In these situations, reporters often face an apparent dilemma: Do you want to be first? Do you want to be right?

The answer, of course, is that a conscientious reporter should want to be the first one who is also right.

And, just so I don’t let anyone else off the hook, this message needs to be embraced and shared by editors, desk people, and top management. The message has to be sent early, often, and unambiguously.

How do I know?

Aren’t I just a professor, safely watching this from the sidelines?

Well, yes and no. I worked for almost five years in a news cockpit, covering the state government of Massachusetts for the AP. In that role, one of my duties was to read the opinions of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (the SJC, the oldest continuously sitting court in the English-speaking New World, older than SCOTUS). When those opinions were newsworthy, as they often were, I had to bang out an immediate hard-news lead. Directly across the room from me in the Statehouse Press Gallery, my competitors at UPI were doing the same thing. We could tell from the sound of our typing who was writing and who was finished and had transmitted the story. The stakes were not as high as they were on Thursday at SCOTUS, but covering the SJC is essentially the same challenge.

So, here are my takeaways from the health-care bulletin fiasco:

–News organizations need “beat” reporters. That is, they need reporters who specialize in an area (health care, let’s say, or covering the Supreme Court) and become experts in it. General-assignment reporters (and god love ‘em, we need them too) cannot be thrown at every new situation and expected to learn on the fly.

–The Supreme Court should re-institute the “embargo” system. An embargo occurs when the news media are given material in advance, on condition that they agree to withhold it until a specific time. When that agreed-upon moment arrives, the journalists are all released from their promise and can all disseminate the news at the same time. That system has several advantages. It means that reporters are quarantined for a period of time that they can use to their benefit — they can read the whole opinion, maybe more than once; they can check their notes and background materials; they can even call experts for analysis and comment. They can use the time to craft a story that is accurate and complete, knowing that no other news organization that participated in the embargo is going to scoop them. Granted, it is not natural for a news professional to endorse any system that delays the delivery of news. But the reason we sometimes accept embargoes is that they ultimately serve the best interest of our audiences, which is what we should care about the most.

–We need bloggers too. A delicious irony from Thursday is that two big-deal professional news organizations (yes, I am lumping Fox News in here, arguendo) discovered their mistake in part by reading a blog! The highly regarded SCOTUSblog got the story right and prompted part of the correction process. So, let’s give a hat tip to the power of a small group of experts using the Web to communicate.

(And a special salute to Lyle Denniston of SCOTUSblog, seen at right. Talk about beat reporters! He has been covering the Supreme Court for 54 years, or far longer than any of the current justices has served.)

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Filed under blogging, broadcasting, CNN, Fox News, Journalism, Supreme Court

A throwback?

By Christopher B. Daly

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that two broadcasters who aired material that was arguably indecent can get off on a technicality. The court ruled yesterday that the FCC, which regulates broadcasting (because broadcasting uses the electromagnetic spectrum, which we all own, collectively), did not give the broadcasters sufficient notice.

The real question is this: what the heck is the FCC still doing trying to regulate the content of television? That is a question that SCOTUS apparently decided to sidestep in the latest case.

Since Congress created the fore-runner to the FCC in 1927, the FCC has been overseeing radio, television, and other communications that use the public’s airwaves.  Leaving the merits of their decisions aside, is there any rationale for FCC interference in what can be shown on cable television (which does not use the airwaves and relies instead on entirely private property)?

The landmark case in this area remains FCC v. Pacifica — the one involving the late comedian George Carlin’s famous “seven words you can’t say on radio” skit.

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Filed under broadcasting, Supreme Court

NBC News Losing Lead

By Christopher B. Daly

I don’t write much about network television news, because I never worked in that part of the news business. But a story in today’s Times about the challenges piling up at NBC News prompt some thoughts, from the point of view of a consumer.

First, some context: NBC was the original pioneer of news on television, thanks to its mid-20th Century chief executive, David Sarnoff. A Russian immigrant, Sarnoff had the kind of rise in broadcasting that Pulitzer had had in newspapers. He made NBC Radio so powerful in the 1930s that the government pressured it to divide in half in the 1940s. Going forward, Sarnoff pushed hard for NBC to add television to its remaining radio division. In both media, NBC showcased news as both a loss leader and as a way to impress the FCC with its fulfillment of the obligation to broadcast “in the public interest.”

Flash forward: NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams is the top-rated evening news show on TV (far ahead of anything on cable). Meet the Press with David Gregory is the top serious Sunday morning interview show. The Today Show is the top “news” show in the morning. But the daily programs, both morning and evening, are hearing footsteps. (This is not to mention Rock Center with Brian Williams, which appears to be a vanity program destined for cancellation soon.)

IMHO, the problems NBC is having in the morning and the evening have different sources. In the evening, the problem appears to be Brian Williams. With each passing year in the anchor chair (the one once shared by Huntley and Brinkley), he becomes more pompous, ponderous, and insufferable. He cannot help himself from making unctuous comments on the news, or applauding his correspondents for merely workmanlike stories. His own segments, though rare, are particularly revolting — softball time-shares with celebs or heads of state, wounded vets, found dogs, etc. The Nightly News has a pretty impressive team of correspondents and camera-persons. Williams should shut up and let them do their jobs.

In the morning, the Today Show has figured out a way to generate $200 million  a year in profit, which goes directly to the bottom line of NBCUniversal, which means it goes 51% to Comcast and 49% to GE. The show has come a long way from its debut in 1952, when it was cooked up by NBC exec Pat Weaver (father of Sigourney). The original host was Dave Garroway, who shared the responsibilities with a pet chimp named J. Fred Muggs.

From what I observe by watching the program a lot, the formula seems to be this: forget about men, who apparently do not watch television in the morning; instead, appeal to women with a daily diet of the stuff that NBC presumes is of interest to women: domestic abuse nightmares, celebrity marriage stories, missing children, missing blonde women, the British royals, recipes, fashion, and all the rest. (All of which has made me a convert to Morning Joe on another NBC channel, MSNBC.)

If the Today Show wants to innovate and expand, here’s a thought: go beyond women.

And keep Ann Curry. She’s adorable.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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“Fox & Friends”

By Christopher B. Daly 

In reading today’s Times story about the Fox News morning program “Fox & Friends,” I found it difficult to decide which of these facts was more startling:

____ Gretchen Carlson graduated from Stanford University, with honors no less!

____ Gretchen Carlson plays classical violin.

____ Gretchen Carlson was Miss America in 1989.

It has been reported. Now you decide.

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Filed under broadcasting, Glenn Beck, Journalism

Watergate: Lessons learned and un-learned

By Christopher B. Daly

The Boston Globe’s estimable, veteran political reporter Brian Mooney has a front-page story addressing the question: what has happened to the “Watergate reforms” in the 40 years since the Watergate break-in that began the fall of Republican President Richard Nixon.

Turns out, one of the great post-Watergate reforms — the public financing of elections — is all but dead.

Not only that, but the larger trend of political changes in recent years mark a move away from the lessons learned in Watergate.

One lesson was that power corrupts. Therefore, the power that comes from making big donations to a politician was limited by the caps placed on individual giving. The Supreme Court, however, decided to get rich people back into the business of financing elections, through the Citizens United ruling.

Another lesson was that sunlight is the best disinfectant. Therefore, Congress required all candidates for federal office to account publicly for every dollar raised and every dollar spent. Not so for the new Super-PACs.

Another lesson was that money corrupts. Therefore, Congress almost got up the courage to ban all private donations and institute a system of 100% publicly funded elections. But they blinked and created a hybrid by which politicians had to opt in or out. When the amounts available through public financing failed to keep pace with the amounts candidates could get through private fund-raising, almost every serious mainstream candidate rejected public financing and started holding fund-raisers with wealthy donors.

It appears that the past is prologue.

graphic/ Boston Globe

graphic/ Boston Globe

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Filed under Journalism, journalism history, Politics, Supreme Court

Leaks (cont.)

By Christopher B. Daly

The able legal-affairs reporter Charlie Savage and Scott Shane have an interesting update in today’s Times about the issue of national-security leaks. The upshot is that the Obama administration has (surprisingly perhaps) emerged as the all-time record-holder among all U.S. presidential administrations for prosecuting leaks. (The piece has a helpful sidebar — which was better looking in print than online — that summarizes nine known leaks cases.)

A couple of related questions:

–Which administration holds the record for generating leaks? (probably a two-term president like Nixon, Reagan, G.W.Bush? or like Clinton?)

–Isn’t it worthwhile to distinguish between different types of leaks?

A. We might differentiate between authorized and unauthorized leaks.

B. We might differentiate between leaks to journalists and leaks to others.

C. We might differentiate between leaks that do harm and those that do not.

For example, it is one thing for a traitor to steal operational secrets and sell or give them to agents of a hostile power. That’s the kind of leak that should properly trigger Congressional outrage and lead to criminal prosecutions. That kind of leak raises no First Amendment issues.

It is quite a different thing for a troubled official to tell a journalist about a secret policy so that the public can debate whether that policy is a good idea. It is this kind of leak that usually induces partisan posturing and leak investigations that fizzle. It is also the kind of leak that requires a careful weighing of the First Amendment implications.

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